The legend of how a Pawtucket youngster rose to become an NCAA Division I tennis player began on an innocent note.
“My mom [Diane] dropped off my siblings and I,” remembers Jeremy Clark, referring to the Slater Park Summer Youth Tennis Camp he attended at age four.
Looking back, this camp marked the beginning of a mentor-mentee bond in which the mentor took an interest in Clark, who had wasted little time in developing a reputation for racket-smashing outbursts. One day, the mentor walked up to the instructor of the youth tennis camp (Sean McClelland) to specifically inquire about Clark.
“He was noisy and so into it,” said Mario Llano, the aforementioned mentor, who was willing to provide Clark with a golden opportunity for him to further his tennis education.
“He was an easy pick,” noted Llano about Clark, who likely wouldn’t have become one of the state’s top high school tennis players without the resources made available through Project Change. Project Change is a non-profit working in conjunction with the East Providence-based R.I. Tennis Academy that’s owned by Llano.
A recent graduate of Tolman High School, Clark parlayed the tutelage from Llano and Jeff Cote – assistant coach at R.I. Tennis Academy – into a spot on the men’s tennis team at the College of the Holy Cross.
How’s that for a success story?
“All it took was a few times before realizing, ‘Oh my God. This kid is going to be the next big thing,’” said Cote.
Clark is the second youngest of nine siblings. To garner the kind of exposure that ultimately led to him attracting the attention of the Holy Cross coaching staff, it was imperative that the family received help in footing the bill for the registration fees and transportation costs to enter U.S. Tennis Association/New England – sponsored youth tournaments.
This is where the financial life raft made available through Project Change proved to be Clark’s golden ticket. Essentially, he was a scholarship kid long before earning a scholarship from Holy Cross.
“From Day 1, I said to Jeremy’s parents that he could come every day until he graduates high school. He needs to be there every day for two hours a day,” said Llano. “He had the commitment and the passion. Plus, he loved it.”
Added Cote, “Without Project Change, playing Division I tennis would have been hard to achieve. Tennis is a sport where you need to be coached. You need to learn the technique. He listened, but Project Change helped Jeremy – 100 percent.”
In Clark, Llano and Cote had a strong base to work with – to develop and mold. A lot of tennis balls have gone over the net in the quest to transform Clark from a scrawny youngster into technically-sound player who attacks as a lefthander.
“I look at Mario and Jeff as another set of parents. I’ve been with the both of them for basically all of my life,” said Clark. “Trust is a big thing. If they tell me something, I trust them. I’ve listened to them year-after-year and it’s paid off.”
Clark was eight when he recalled making a significant jump – mentally and physically. He had already committed to giving his life to tennis. Sports-wise, it became his true calling.
He wasn’t even close to reaching teenage status, yet Clark was already in-tune with what the sport could do for him upon graduating from high school.
“Once I started winning some [USTA tournaments], it was like, boom, there it is,” said Clark. “The competitive aspect is something I definitely liked.”
Under the watchful eyes of Llano and Cote, Clark settled into a year-round, six-days-per-week routine at the Centre Court indoor facility – the home of the R.I. Tennis Academy. It became Clark’s unofficial home away from home.
If Clark ever needs extra motivation, all he needs to do is look at his younger sister Aubrey, a middle school student who has Down Syndrome and Autism.
“If I’m on the court and down a match, I think of the stuff that she can’t do. She’s the reason why I push so hard,” said Clark, a strong student who ranked third in Tolman’s Class of 2021.
Llano and Cote are adamant that the best is yet to come for Clark. After falling in the semifinals of this year’s R.I. Interscholastic League individual boys tennis tournament, Clark voiced a similar sentiment – echoing the mentor who helped to unlock a tremendous amount of potential.
“In college he’s going to be around kids at his level. Most of the time, Jeremy has been one of the better kids,” said Cote. “Tennis is about being pushed, but he’ll rise to the occasion. He’s got the fundamentals and the talent. Now it’s a matter of getting used to the practices and other demands.”